The Fifth Question


Haggadah for the American Family written by Martin Berkowitz, Rabbi, Temple Adath Israel of the Main Line, Merion, Pennsylvania. Copyright © 1958, 1963 and 1966.

Iran’s unsuccessful missile attack on Israel Saturday night had us holding our breath. Now we are taking another breath and hoping for no further escalations. At this critical time, I’m so proud of President Biden for calling for restraint. I’m hearing “If you can keep your head when those about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” the first lines of “If” by Rudyard Kipling.  Because, the other way lies mutually assured destruction. I’d written the following essay a day before Iran’s launch. I think it means even more on this day after:

The first night of Passover this year is April 22nd, when the first Seder is held. The Passover Seder retells the story of when the Israelites, who had been slaves for Pharaoh to build the pyramids, were finally allowed to leave Egypt.

The youngest child comes forward and asks, “Why is this night of Passover different from all other nights of the year?” Four answers follow that explain the Seder. The primary and first answer is that on this night we retell the story of the Exodus of the Israelites who were held captive in Egypt.

And, in the Haggadah, the text of the story that I have read every year since childhood, it is written that this story “is not ancient, but eternal in its message, and its spirit. It proclaims mankind’s burning desire to preserve liberty and justice for all.”

This year there is another question that will hang over every table—why this year is different from all other years. So the fifth question becomes how to conduct the Seder this year, recognizing the horrors on all sides, while keeping hope for peace alive.

With the excruciating war grinding on in Gaza, it is going to be a difficult Seder this year. Some 130 hostages remain in captivity in Gaza that were taken from Israel on October 7th, 2023 when Hamas attacked Israel and killed at least 1200 in unspeakable brutality and wounded more than 3,300 that day. Now thousands of Palestinians in Gaza are dying.

These are all innocent victims of war.

To make any statement is to engender arguments.
So the question becomes how to honor our own pain and that of others without contributing to cycles of anger, violence and calls for retribution.

You can go back days, weeks, months, years; tens, hundreds, and thousands of years to argue about who started what when, why and how. As generations gather together with differing perspectives, these arguments are likely to continue over the Passover Seder meals. So the question becomes how to be gentle with others with whom we disagree.

Perhaps at the table there will be someone to remind us that there were and are many times  when Jews and Arabs did and still do today live peaceably among one other.

What is it then, that we want to ask for, to pray for? To me it is, to pray for the best possible outcome for all concerned, with peace and justice for all. As Rodney King simply said, “Can’t we all just get along?”

We don’t have to know what exactly that should look like, what to envision, we don’t have to know how it will be possible, what are all the questions, what are all the answers.

Will we need to pray that a nuclear war doesn’t break out? Will it be then that a two-state solution is arrived at? We just have to start by asking that the best balanced outcome prevails for all.

In the immediate the specific question is still, how to conduct the Seder this year? For some it may mean leaving out any political discussions altogether. For others it may mean asking each person to share their thoughts, one by one, around the table, in a careful and thoughtful manner. The mind wants answers. It wants to run ahead, play defense, know all the angles.

To reach a clarity of mind and of thought, I follow my breath. This is a simple form of meditation. It physiologically slows down and relaxes me so that, after a minute or longer I am often able to arrive at more clarity of thought. A clear question may form. Or, an answer to a question.

To follow my breath, I breathe with my mouth closed, and see that the breath rises first in the abdomen, and then in the chest. This is also a good exercise to strengthen and relax the muscles that control the lower back and helps to dissipate back pain. In this way, at the beginning of and end of the day, and while driving or standing in line, I regain control of my thoughts and reconnect with my body.

And I will include this prayer, “May the One who causes peace to reign in the high heavens, let peace descend on all the world,” and picture a quiet cool rain falling gently down upon all the world.

This essay, The Fifth Question, was first published on the morning of  April 13, 2024 in the Gallup Independent, New Mexico, USA, and by the New Mexico Jewish Journal, a new independent, state-wide publication based out of Albuquerque, NM.

About the Author
Diane Joy Schmidt, publisher and editor of the new, independent, online, state-wide New Mexico Jewish Journal which launched in March of 2024, has been a regular correspondent and columnist since 2008 for the New Mexico Jewish Link (now closed), the Gallup Independent, the Navajo Times and a contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Tikkun, Lilith, Hadassah Magazine, and the Intermountain Jewish News. Her columns and articles have received seven Rockower Awards from the American Jewish Press Association in seven years as well as first place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arizona Press Association, the Native American Journalists Association, and the National Federation of Press Women. She grew up on Chicago's North Shore in the traditions of Reform Judaism, is anchored by her memories of the fireflies at Union Institute camp and the Big Dipper over Lake Michigan, and is an admirer of all things spiritually resonant.
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